Thursday, June 25, 2009

you've got to get it right while you've got the time

Tonight, the world's all agog with the news about Michael Jackson, and I myself am not sure how to feel about it. I think this is a watershed moment, actually, kind of like when Elvis died. A hinge moment, I think they call it. A tipping point. I mean, Elvis was about the dawn of a new kind of youth culture, an engineered kind of celebrity, a tale of promise gone to success gone to seed. He started out as a marginally talented kid who got rounded up by some hucksters who realized that the time was ripe for something new, something different, a little bit dangerous and ultimately all about sex...and the denial of its power, even as it was being flaunted in this sort of creepy, underage way. Elvis and his crack team of handlers went about it by merging black and white music, and that was also the genius of Quincy Jones and MJ, successfully emasculating and white-ifying funk on the dance floor...though I will unkindly point out that while Elvis was about a figurative merger of black and white, MJ took things a little farther than people were comfortable with, given the whole "gradually becoming white"/"maybe it's vitiligo"/ "plastic surgery addiction" thing.

Anyway. Elvis dying was an end of an era, and a moment when people about the age I am now stopped for a moment and thought, "oh, I really liked him when I was a kid." It got to be one big mortality-check for people just on the cusp of middle age. But you know, the Elvis death stopped everyone for a moment, and people all rushed to Graceland and started this whole (to my mind) odd thing where you leave candles and teddy bears and flowers and such to rot in front of some random place, as though the places themselves are magical and mystical and somehow imbued with the dearly-departed's spirit. I myself think that there was more of the spirit of Elvis embedded in the walls of Sun Studios. Anyhow, I see this kind of continuum, this kind of arc of the Cult of Celebrity, maybe beginning with Elvis, reaching its apogee with Princess Diana, and then, perhaps, just perhaps, ending here, with the sad news today about this poor kid from Gary who was turned into a moneymaking machine, who never got the chance to really create any kind of self outside what the public decided he was supposed to be. I think the weirdness displayed by MJ in the last 10 years fed on itself -- that was how he got publicity, it was how he stayed in the public eye, and being used to the star-maker machinery of the 70s and 80s, that was all he really knew how to do. The new, faster, frankly more vicious celebrity machine of the here and now was something he didn't know how to cope with, I think.
But maybe this will be the thing that changes the paradigm. I mean, I'm not holding my breath, but you never know. The death of Elvis marked the end of the beginning of the whole created, bought-and-paid-for, mass-marketed celebrity culture. Maybe the death of Michael Jackson will mark some kind of ending of the end. Maybe now is when we've finally reached critical mass, now that the tabloid poster child for The Sickly Fascinating Odd has passed to his great reward, whatever that may be. Maybe now is the time that people quite caring about random pretty people doing random things, being famous for fame's sake. Between Jon & Kate, Spencer & Heidi, Robert & Kristen, LiLo, Paris...maybe now is the time when we're all so sick and tired of ourselves and our apparently limitless voyeurism (and our fellow-travellers' apparently limitless exhibitionism) that we can't stand it any more. Though probably not.

I was reading my friend Doug's observation that he was someplace, as the news about Michael Jackson was unfolding, and everyone was staring down at their communication devices, thumbs flying across the keys. I find this unbearably compelling, and unbearably sad. No one wants to look each other in the eyes any more at a time of startle and shock. We want to look at the screen, which is looking back into us, just like the abyss. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it. Wouldn't be the first time. We want to know everything, we want to know it now, we're feeding the beast to the point of bursting and we still want more. We are making things worse, just when we thought that *more, more, more information* would make things all better. Someone asked me about an hour before the official death announcement came what was going on, and I went to TMZ.com for the latest news. Then I went to Twitter. What does this say? When did this happen? What's the next step? Who are we becoming?

He was a guy in over his head. He made some good records. Every time he'd go to Japan, I'd think of Don DeLillo's book "Mao II," which opens with the thought that the face of the future is the face of the frenzied mob. Ordinarily rational people started wearing red leather jackets with too many zippers so they could be more like him. He was driven mad by having the world at his feet -- a common enough tale. Like Ozymandias, King of Kings (no, not the Watchmen character). Look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair.

1 comment:

Amateur Reader said...

This should go in the book. A book.

 
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A Microscopic Cog in a Catastrophic Plan by Laura Lorson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at witheringexhaustion.blogspot.com.